The Future Just Happened!

As I write this we have just learned that we have been shortlisted for a Times Higher Award for our work on the Kit-Catalogue project. Kit-Catalogue is a collaborative effort to devise software to support equipment sharing. This is in order that institutions make best use of scarce resources, whilst also bringing together people working in the same disciplines - including new and existing industrial collaborators. Find out more about Kit-Catalogue from the presentation embedded above.

My congratulations to Melanie King, Paul Newman, Jonathan Attenborough and Rachel Thomson for all their hard work on the project!

Is there something in the water?

This is the third time we have been a Times Higher awards finalist in recent tiimes - winning in the ICT category for our i2012 hybrid cloud project earlier this year, and shortlisted in 2011 for our project to implement the Google Apps cloud collaboration suite.

I think we have, albeit perhaps inadvertently, tapped into a wider shift or transition that is taking place. This places the IT department as a true partner in teaching and learning, research and enterprise - rather than simply a provider of infrastructure.

Kit-Catalogue is an excellent case in point here, and it is particularly gratifying to see that a number of other Universities have picked up the software (it's open source) or asked us to host an instance of Kit-Catalogue for them. And in fact Kit-Catalogue is already an award winning project, winning this year's S-Lab Conference and Awards in the Equipment and Service category. The S-Lab awards celebrate "Safe, Successful and Sustainable" laboratories.

Another recent piece of work in a similar vein that I am very proud of is HPC Midlands. HPC Midlands is a collaboration between Loughborough University and the University of Leicester to provide "Cloud Supercomputing" services to academia and industry. We were recently awarded £1m from the BIS/EPSRC e-Infrastructure initiative to buy a 3,000 core supercomputer system for HPC Midlands, and have been working with leading supercomputing software suppliers such as ANSYS, and strategic partners including E.ON. Find out more about HPC Midlands from my presentation to the Bull eXtreme Computing user group, embedded below:

As part of the HPC Midlands work I am keen to validate a Pay As You Go model for access to supercomputing software licenses. This is breaking new ground and will make it possible for startups and spinoffs to make use of these normally capital intensive facilities. More anon on HPC Midlands - I think there will be a very interesting story to tell about this work.

"You and me were never meant to be part of the future"

As IT people we could simply focus on what one might think of as our core competencies. Examples of this would include running a really reliable network, and following best practices regarding online security. I feel we at Loughborough do a good job of both these things, as shown by the success of our work on eduroam for JANET and ESISS, the EMMAN Shared Information Security Service. Many people took the concept of a "shared service" to imply outsourcing, TUPE etc, but I think we have shown that there is another model based on the community coming together to scratch a shared itch.

So what's all this about the light at the end of the tunnel being from an oncoming train? The problem is that our skills and competencies are starting to diverge from what the world now requires.  The growth of Web 2.0 services, smartphones, tablets and Bring Your Own Device has certainly played a major part in this change. Ironically it is Microsoft that have delivered the coup de grace through a combination of recent developments in Windows 8, and the Surface tablet. If you haven't come across Surface yet, watch this video:

What's the big deal? Well, several things:

1. In Windows 8, software is now obtained from the Windows Store - so no need for a cottage industry of software packaging and deployment (though apps can still be side loaded in the traditional fashion in some Windows 8 editions)

2. Surface has no user serviceable parts (if breaks, send it back) and will sell at loss leader pricing to ensure good sales - so no picking up a screwdriver and opening up the box, and no history of dealing with Microsoft as a "PC" supplier.

3. Windows Live / Office365 promoted heavily - customers are encouraged to move to a subscription for cloud hosted email, storage etc at every available opportunity.

4. Windows 8 is such a huge step change that most IT departments will feel compelled to skip it - but this is simply postponing the inevitable and will result in them being even more out of touch by the time the next version of Windows is released.

On this last point, here is a video that very effectively demonstrates just how different Windows 8 is from previous versions of Windows:

Clearly Microsoft feel seriously threatened by iOS and Android (both Google and Amazon's versions :-) and believe that these sweeping changes are necessary in order to compete effectively.

However, there are also astronomical risks for the company should either Surface or Windows 8 fail to perform in the marketplace. The release of Surface is particularly crucial here, as a heavily discounted yet high quality device would effectively nuke the market for almost all non-Surface Ultrabooks and tablets from Microsoft OEMs. The devices recently announced at IFA are still playing by the old rule book which attaches a premium price tag, way beyond the price of a high end laptop. However, without the income from a content/app ecosystem such as the Windows Store, it would be difficult for an OEM to justify selling their Windows 8 tablet with a low margin or at cost. This only makes sense for Microsoft themselves, and other ecosystem owners such as Google and Amazon.

The changes I've outlined above are not Bad Things per se. As an end user there are distinct benefits to close integration with Microsoft's online services. Software installation and update management has always been extremely painful under Windows. The move to a Linux/Mac style approach to package management will undoubtedly be very well received, and sealed devices such as the iPhone and iPad seem to have worked out quite well for Apple - in spite of complaints from the digerati about fixability and flexibility.

But let us imagine that Windows 8 fails to gain market share, and/or Surface turns out to be vapourware. iOS and Android are becoming more and more entrenched, with 1.3m Android devices now activated every day. There is a very real danger for Microsoft that they may have left their Damascene conversion too late - Office and Windows (and Android patent licenses :-) are the main profit centres for the firm, so a decline in sales of either core product could be disastrous. A key point here is that alienated Windows OEMs might well revive their plans to bring out Android devices in a range of form factors. Office for iPad is rumoured to be arriving shortly. Office for Android may not be long in following, driven by necessity.

The Good News Bit

This is a time of unprecedented change, and it would be easy to conclude that the central IT service has now had its day - or is ripe for outsourcing. I think that would be premature, and I hope you will agree with me that the evidence above demonstrates that there is another way.

We can take a simplistic view of the sucess of our operation in terms of metrics such as uptime, and time-to-fix on faults, but this only gets us so far. Many of these statistics are meaningless for complex research instruments such as supercomputers, for example. For me the true key performance indicators are numbers of invited conference presentations, papers co-authored and grant submissions - proof that we are fulfilling our "academic-related" remit and contributing to the intellectual life of the institution.

Martin Hamilton

Martin Hamilton works for Jisc in London as their resident Futurist.